A Religious Experience

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I’ve never been able to meditate. I’ve had classes in meditation, yoga, even lucid dreaming to try and find that point where it is engaged on the pin prick of the present, rather than being weighed down thought. As much as I try though, I continue to wait for a sense of calm, as quiet as I sit and try to clear my head, it never happens. Thoughts wander back, like that mosquito caught inside the net, whining and invisible in the dark. This weekend however, I had what must be the closest experience to it. Most importantly, I went into without any conscious effort at all. I felt an absolute presence of the moment and I was drinking in every second of it without room to spare for thought and speculation. I wasn’t in a temple, or a beach side yoga class, I was on a small fishing boat, with the moan of an engine driving me across muddy water.

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This week zoomed by in a mix of fruitless drone repair, helping in the lab and field and doing my own research. Left to my own devices, the weekend approached quickly and soon it was Saturday, the last day of sampling the Plasticine caterpillars. We needed to get it done as soon as we could, as Janya had invited Benita and I out to his family’s home for the weekend and we had to leave at 11. He lived in Phattalung, Trang’s neighboring province, about an hour away from Khao Chong.

I wolfed down my curry and rice, gulping instant coffee as I hauled wet socks onto my feet. It had been raining since early in the morning but now the deluge had built to such ferocity that the galvanized roof of the kitchen groaned beneath the onslaught. As it was a Saturday, the rest of the guys had gone home so there was no scooter to borrow to get to the field site. We turned instead to the rickety bikes in the corner of the office. Benita hopped onto the mountain bike and I wheeled out the small, old road bike. It was meant for someone about a foot shorter than me, my kneecaps clanged against the handlebars as we set off. Water seeped into every inch of my person, hammering my eyes shut with stinging drops. After the wet scramble to the site, I disengaged my crippling wedgie and hauled the bike out of view of the road. It was hot despite the rain and the water from my brow tasted salty with sweat. We collected the inanimate caterpillars, still clinging to the surface of leaves with a steadfast resolve that only a plasticine caterpillar glued to a leaf can embody. Very few showed any signs of predation, we moodily shoved them into tubes and stomped out of the forest, puddles splashing back as we walked. Back on the bikes, water squelched out of my boots as we pushed the chattering gears up the hill once more. Arriving back at the station, we were greeted by a beaming Janya, resplendent in his purple ‘Saturday shirt’ and totally unphased by the tropical storm blending up the field station. “Ready? We go now.”

Janya is an interesting character. He studies plants from the Rattan family of palms, about sixteen species from six genera, though to be honest I haven’t seen much evidence of this, apart from long naps on his Rattan rug on the verandah. He is one of those people who seems effortlessly content with the now, quietly smiling in the engaged and attentive way of a totally present person. He cooks incredible food, rattling pans and spatulas, bringing the cracked concrete kitchen to life as turns literally anything in the fridge into something, hot, colourful and above all, ‘aroi’- delicious. He spends most of his day eating, watching Chinese soap operas and napping. His English is ok but communication is difficult. Benita can communicate with him, but when I ask a question he usually laughs, shrugs and calls me by my nickname “Mister Bean!”

So we got back to find Janya with keys in hand, ready to leave as pools of water swelled around our ankles. We declined to hop in there and then but ran upstairs to get showered and clean rather than marinade for another hour in the stuffy cab of the truck.

On the way there I had a conversation with Janya that pretty much epitomized the circum-loquacious nature of communication here. Whenever I sigh or point to the expanse of forest around a bend in the road, Janya laughed and sang “What a won-nerful world,” his favourite song at dinner time karaoke. On this occasion, he added,

“I love the Lewis Armstrong.”

I paused for a second, considering whether it was worth it, then added,

“Me too, actually you don’t pronounce the ‘S’ in his name, its just Lou-ee.”

“Yes, yes. Lewis Armstrong, good song,” he smiled.

“Yeah, but its, his name is pronounced Lou-ee. It’s a French name and they don’t pronounce the ‘S’. You just say Lou-ee.”

He paused. “The letter ‘S’?” He asked.

“Yes, yeah you don’t say the ‘S’ in Louis, its just Lou-ee.”

His brow furrowed.

“Do you know what I mean?” I asked.

“Yes I understand.” He said.

Silence.

“So its Lou-ee Armstrong.” I said.

“Yes, yes Lewis Armstrong, what a won-nerful road!” He beamed back.

Defeated, I turned to Benita who was shaking in laughter in the back.

After a few more of these exchanges, we arrived at Janya’s home where we met his three sisters. They spoke less English than him, but it turned out they were talking mostly about food, so when we sat down to eat and happy silence descended anyway. The rest of the day passed in a blur of sleep and reading, surprised by the opportunity to do nothing at all. Soon enough I dozed off for the night, sleeping in a room with air conditioning for the first time since I can’t remember when.

I woke that morning to the sound of Janya rapping on the bedroom door. I hauled my heavy limbs out of bed and looked at my watch, reading an obscene 6.00 am. We were headed to Thale Noi, a lake not far from Janya’s home to take a boat across before breakfast. The lake is part of the Ramsar Wetlands, the shallow waters of which stretch over to Songkhla Lake in which the only population of a critically endangered population of Irrawaddy Dolphin in Thailand are known to live.

On an aside, a few nights ago, Pitoon’s friends came over for dinner and about ten of us got round the table for a massive dinner of steamed coconut curry, forest nuts, and about twelve other dishes, littering the table with an excess of spice and colour. They spoke a little Enlgish and Pitoon helped translate but communication was still difficult. It was frustrating because I would have loved to talk to them about their work. They were forest ecologists and conservationists, working with WWF on forest monitoring and reforestation. They surveyed satellite images of forests and visited sites to see if the forest was still intact. While talking to one woman about her work, she mentioned that she was stationed in Songkhla for her research. I asked about the dolphins and after a about half an hour of translation, this is what I got out. There are about 25 dolphins in the lake, at last estimate and one is estimated to get killed every two months due to entanglement in fishing nets. The government has since tried to get a program going in which they buy the wide-mesh nets from the fishermen and exchange them for smaller diameter mesh nets. These small mesh nets are more visible to the sonar of dolphins due to their higher density and therefore ability to reflect soundwaves. So when a dolphin calls, it will receive an echo back from the net and can avoid getting caught. My first thoughts were about the fish stocks, whether smaller mesh size would drive stocks down by catching smaller, more juvenile fish. However if you’re only looking at the conservation the dolphins, this problem is longer term than the mere 50 months it would take statistically take to drive this population to extinction.

We slouched into the the truck next to a grinning Janya and headed to the lake. When we arrived I was turned of by the sight of touristy duck- shaped pedal boats and wished I was still in bed. Janya walked past these and chatted to a Thai man wearing a life jacket, he pointed to the long fishing boats with pole- mounted propellers and gestured our way. At the helm was an old Thai man. He didn’t speak, but quietly dissected us with piercing yellow-grey eyes that actually seemed to shine out from beneath the brim of his hat as he exhaled a drag from the palm cigarette. I don’t know how old he was, but those pupils must have been diamond cutters in his youth. I folded myself into the narrow boat, pale knees jutting from my shorts reflected back against the deep chocolate of the marshy water. An expressionless woman walked and took three photos; Benita, Janya and me.

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A swoosh of water scissored above my ears as the boat driver pushed the prop up and out of the water, dropping it back in a smooth arc. With a pulse of the throttle, he pivoted the nose out from dock and in among the lotuses of the shore.

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The tick-tick-tick of the engine was drowned to a purr beneath the water and the driver seemed to hardly move the rudder at all, focusing on some distant point ahead. We moved on through the lilies, the motion of the water awakening little shrimp sunbathing from the dry surface of lotus leaves and hopping into the green water. Swift-like birds broke powerful sweeps with their tiny wings, throttling up into the air beside us and looping back to the surface of the water in a quick, sweet parabola.

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Focusing on the water, the washed out, early silver light and field of view of my GoPro, I was aware of drifting into the moment. It was 6.30 in the morning, but every cell of me felt awake and vibrating, alive and finite.

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Janya plucked lotuses from the water, pink flowers attached to floppy, tentacular stems. The shutter of Benita’s camera stammered with the effort of taking in the birds, plants, fish and everything among the glutton of subjects. I put my lens down to the bubbly waterline of the boat amongst violent coursing ripples, fading out into the lake’s horizon.

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Janya asked the driver something and he murmured a response. “We now go to see water buffalo!”

An evergreen tree stood out of the water, surreal in the early light. The sprouting canopy was reflected perfectly in the water, giving the impression of a green tumbleweed and we sensed movement ahead. Creeping round the spindly peninsula, the other side of the lake emerged.

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Buffalo appeared, gliding shoulder height in the water, grazing on fresh leaves peaking from the floundering tops of young, submerged trees. Muscles flickered under taught, furry black skin, pulsing gentle ripples into the water as they drifted. Hot breathe misted against the water and curled up neat horns. Their eyes found no purchase on us as we sailed on past but remained solidly hooked on the plants in front.

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We kept going and beneath an overpass, a trucked droned in the distance, concrete pillars reflecting the noise of the engine into a squeal. “We now in Songkhla,” said Janya. There was much less vegetation in the water here, and the lake was completely dissolved in light. Clouds gazed back up to the sky, unfettered by any ripple or lily patch. It was completely silent, save for the engine, but I felt blown away by the calm here, deafened by the expanse of it all. A boat of Thai tourists whizzed by, chattering and taking photos, returning me briefly to reality.

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The boat twisted around and back to Thale Noi. We headed out to the centre of the lake on the homeward leg, away from the lilies and tree and over to fields of horsetail grass, needling through the surface into a wide, silvery expanse. Something odd happened here. Sounds of the engine once again broke into the air, but I turned to see the propeller clearly immersed beneath the surface. This sound rang out whenever we passed the horsetail grass. It seemed as though the purr of the engine was transformed by the hollow stems, like an orchestra of tuning forks, liberating vibrations from below the water and into the air, propeller clicks ringing out with a sharp mechanical clarity like the winding of a clock.

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A tall man in a bandana stood atop the deck of another boat, fishing rod in hand. He was wearing sunglasses and had his mouth covered, but I could see from his pale complexion that he wasn’t Thai and more likely a Chinese tourist come for the fishing. Thale Noi is also known as the Thale Noi Non-hunting area, however we passed at least twelve boats hauling up fish boxes, and it is likely that he had bribed the boat driver for the opportunity. Our eyes met and heads turned as we passed, filming myself reflected blankly in his dark glasses.

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Swifts continued to follow us, zipping and flitting with silent smoothness. A large pair of wings unfurled and loped into the sky about 200 yards ahead. “Eagle!” Yelled Janya. I found out later that it was a Brahimny Kite, its stark white head resembled that of a bald eagle. Water birds hauled themselves out of our path, paddled feet scrabbling at the sky awkwardly as they flew. I watch everything, too absorbed for reflection, no speculation, want or any void at all. Just a feeling of total immersion and quiet awe. There was no space for retrospect or thought, only presence.

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I hardly noticed when the engine puttered to a halt, water spraying again from the propeller as it was lifted into the air. Entranced, I paid the driver 450 Baht and watched as he folded the notes between his delicate, parchment fingers. His hat tipped forward ever so slightly with a hint of a nod and he retreated, preistlike to the tiller.

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